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Free Study Guide for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

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From the business district, Clyde wanders to the more prosperous residential areas, noting how much smaller in scale Lycurgus is to Chicago. He then heads to the collar factory to report to Gilbert, who is Secretary of the Company. There, he discovers the secretary treats him with respectful deference upon finding out he is a Griffiths - a new experience for Clyde. He’s directed to Gilbert’s office, who sizes him up and treats him contemptuously, passing him off to Joshua Whiggam to learn his new job in the shrinking department.

The process of shrinking collars is thus explained to Clyde, and another employee in the department, Kemerer, is assigned to work with him. Clyde is displeased and confused with the lowly nature of his assignment. When he leaves the factory, he walks out to the rich residences and, admiring one particularly beautiful home, finds out from a passerby that it’s the Samuel Griffiths residence. Clyde imagines the grandeur inside, compares it to his own family and personal history - both of which fills him with disgust and depression.


Whiggam is unsure of how to treat Clyde, as there are mixed signals of his relationship to the Griffiths and the position assigned to him. He decides Clyde may be learning the business from the bottom-up. For his part, Clyde notices the menial nature of his work and that he’ll associate with a lower class of people than the bell-hops of his past. This is especially important to him, as Clyde sees upward mobility as achieved by one’s social interactions: one associates with the upper class to become a part of that class, and to do the opposite does not bode well for him.



With Braley’s help, Clyde secures a room in a boarding house on Thorpe Street. He dines with the other boarders - all lower-class laborers - and afterwards goes out to Lycurgus’ main streets. He is surprised at the crowds on the streets in the early evening and notes that a better class of people seemed to frequent the streets and shops around Wykeagy Avenue. Clyde decides that he likes Lycurgus and will give his new job a shot. Meanwhile, Gilbert reports to his family at dinner of Clyde’s arrival --Samuel is not present, as he is on business in New York City. Clyde’s news is generally negative on Clyde - his mother is sympathetic with her son’s feelings, while his sisters are more skeptical of this opinion.

The next morning, Clyde arrives at the factory for his first day of work; the doorman directs him to Old Jeff, the time-clock guard, who gives him a locker. When Clyde leaves for the basement, the two men remark on how Gilbert and Clyde look so much alike, enough that the doorman had initially mistaken Clyde for Gilbert. The workers in the shrinking department are friendly, respectful, and distant to Clyde, who misses home. He thinks of Hortense and how he could impress her by his relations, if not his current job, and how he would snub her if he ever had the chance.


Kemerer is unsure of what to make of Clyde, deciding he was being groomed for better things. Clyde feels the same to be possible and, assuming a superior and condescending attitude, confirms Kemerer’s suspicions. Thus, it’s all about appearances --if one takes on the air of a superior, one will be assumed to be superior. However, these are strongly drawn lines of class antagonism.



Disliking the commonplace job in the shrinking department, Clyde is equally disdainful of the boarding house of Mrs. Cuppy’s. However, Walter Dillard, a young ambitious man who also boards at Cuppy’s, tries to cultivate a friendship with Clyde upon finding out his relationship to the Griffiths. Clyde, protective of the family name and aware of the consequences if he makes any mis-steps in Lycurgus, initially keeps his distance from Dillard, believing himself to be superior. Dillard keeps trying however, and on a walk together invites Clyde to go out with him Sunday and go dancing with a couple of girls. Clyde is hesitant, but strongly tempted. Dillard understands and assures discretion for this private dance party.


Because of its various manufacturing companies, Lycurgus is a city that attracts workers from nearby areas, such as Walter Dillard - and, as we later learn, Roberta Alden and Grace Marr. Dillard makes more money and has a better family background than Clyde; however, he defers to Clyde because of his direct (if largely untapped) connection to the ruling class of Lycurgus. Once again, a social model of upward mobility is reinforced, as is the importance of appearance over reality.


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